Disagreeing experts disagreeable

At the risk of committing professional fratricide, it is time I address an issue I’ve been struggling with since wine first became a serious interest of mine: the inherent subjectivity of wine reviews.

The enjoyment of wine is a purely sensory one. How we see, smell, feel and taste a wine is our own unique physiological experience. And therein lies the dilemma. How does one person’s synthesis of those senses become an objective analysis, and judgment, of a wine’s attributes and worth? 

Enter the experts. By definition, they have special skills or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject. We rely on them to help inform our thinking on almost everything — from art, music, literature and films to sports, consumer products and politicians. Across these and any other areas of interest, you often find a wide range of opinions. 

Thankfully for those of us afflicted by the dangerously expensive pursuit of fine wine, the most respected authorities in the industry typically share an informed, specific point of view. Their consensus is particularly important because wine, like almost no other high-end product, is usually something one has to purchase without first being able to experience in some way. 

That is why, when wine experts’ reviews don’t align, it is befuddling — bordering on unsettling — to those of us who take their word as gospel. For example, what follows are two reviews of the 2010 vintage of Chateau d’Yquem, one of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, expensive wines in the world, written by two of the most respected critics in the world.

Robert Parker: “It is a slow-burner, the nose understated at first but unfurling with each passing moment with subtle scents of freshly sliced apricots, clementine, clear honey and white flowers. The palate is similar to the nose, revealing hidden facets with almost each swirl of the glass — orange blossom, limestone, white peach and honeysuckle.” 

James Molesworth: “Tropical and inviting, with lush mango, fig and papaya aromas followed by pineapple and creamed banana. The long tangerine finish is flattering and very open now, but the length is clearly there.” 

Do those sound remotely like the same wine to you? 

There seems to be a conventional wisdom among casual consumers that price and reputation, not quality, influence most wine reviews. While there are always a few bad apples, most reputable critics I know trade on their integrity.

I just thumbed through a recent issue of Wine Spectator and found the following reviews of two Pinot Noirs that appeared adjacent to but unrelated to one another.

Wine A. Black cherry and blackberry flavors are at the core of this massive red. Though not very expressive now, floral, spice and mineral notes add depth as this shows beautiful texture and freshness, building slowly to the long aftertaste. 

Wine B. A classy, art-of-the-blend cuvee that is very ripe but still complex, relying on rich dark berry, plum, crushed rock and cedar. So young and vibrant at this stage, yet also so deep and ripe, that it’s both tempting to drink now but looks like a great cellar choice as well.

Wine A is the Jean Grivot Richebourg 2009 ($700). Wine B is the Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast 35th Anniversary Vintage 2010 ($24). 

This month I recommend the Calera. If you have either the d’Yqeum or Richebourg, I would be happy to taste them and write you a personal review.

Derek M. LaVallee, director of public affairs and public relations and certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.